Monday, May 1, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Mannekin Pis

If there is one symbol that represents the city of Brussels, based on its ubiquitous presence, it must be the tiny bronze sculpture of the naked boy peeing an actual stream of water into the basin of a stone fountain. Named Mannekin Pis and standing about 2 feet tall, the statue was created around 1619 by Brussels sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder.  This original figure survived many misadventures through the centuries including thefts, kidnappings and acts of vandalism.  It had to be restored multiple times before a replica was put in its place and the original moved to safe keeping behind glass in the Brussels City Museum.

One of the first attempted thefts of Mannekin Pis was by French soldiers in 1747.  To appease the outraged Brussels people, King Louis XV of France appointed Mannekin Pis a “Chevalier of the Order of Saint Louis” and presented the city with a nobleman’s outfit for the sculpture, including a  gown made of fine blue silk embroidered with gold, a hat, white gloves, a sword, and the Cross of St. Louis.  Since then, it has become quite the tradition to dress Mannekin Pis, with costumes being created and sent from around the world, many of them representing the national dress of the presenting countries, as well as uniforms representing trades and professions or pop culture icons.  Prior to 1945, the costumes were created so that both sleeves were stuffed, causing them to stick out on either side.  At the end of the sleeves were gloves, similar to the Louis XV gift.  In 1945, a pattern was created that took Mannekin Pis’ natural arm positions into account.  The sculpture is dressed in different costumes that are regularly changed on a pre-published schedule and often accompanied by a festive ceremony including a parade and brass band music.  Mannekin Pis has its own official dresser who is responsible for putting the costumes on and taking them off.   When we first arrived in Brussels, the statue was not dressed but a couple of days later when we passed by again, it was dressed as a “Reporter Without Borders”, decked out in a t-shirt, blue vest and pants and carrying a camera and a newspaper.  It was too bad we missed the dressing ceremony.

Two modern sculptures have been inspired by and created as tributes to Mannekin Pis.  Designed in 1985 by Denis Debourvrie, the statue of a little girl squatting to pee is called Jeanneke Pis and provides gender equality in terms of peeing sculptures.  Unfortunately the gates were closed around the statue when we visited, so we had to peer through the bars to get a good view.  The other sculpture is called Het Zinneke, depicting a dog urinating on a post, created in 1998 by Tom Frantzen.  This sculpture is positioned right on the edge of the street so that you can walk right up to it.  That makes it more at risk of damage and in 2015, it was struck by a car and had to be repaired by the sculptor.  I guess that's why the Jeanneke Pis is behind bars, in order to protect her from damage.

In addition to these sculptures, there are commercial references to Mannekin Pis in shops and eateries throughout the historic centre.  This includes the expected souvenir sculptures and dressed dolls, key chains, bottle openers, mugs, as well as a giant chocolate rendering, and versions touting all types of food from Belgian fries to gelato to waffles to candy.

Mannekin Pis has over 1000 costumes which are administered by the association called “Friends of Mannekin Pis”.  Recently a new museum called GardeRobe Mannekin Pis was established in order to display a rotating subset of these costumes which are vibrant, elaborate and intricately designed.  Mannekin Pis receives around 15-20 new costumes per year and is dressed 130 days of the year with a different costume placed on him approximately every 3rd day.  He is not allowed to wear anything that can be interpreted as political, religious or commercial.  Many countries are on display with costumes representing their national history or culture.  It is interesting that the wardrobe from Canada is a Montreal Canadiens hockey uniform with hockey stick and toque (what happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs??).

As only about 100+ costumes can be physically on display in the museum at any time, the ones that are not currently being shown can be viewed online via kiosks.  You can search by themes such as Historic Costumes, Sports, Professions, Folklore, Military, Radio and Television, Carnival, Arts, Characters, Music, Personalities, etc.  Once you pick a theme, you will be given a list of costumes that fall into that theme and then you can drill down to see a larger image and get more information.  Through the online catalogue, we found two more Canadian related costumes – a “Traditional Costume from the Province of Quebec”, and a “Canadian Bagpiper”.

Because they were easily recognizable, I liked some of the pop culture costumes including Elvis, Dracula, Obelix from the French comics Asterix and Obelix, and actor/singer Maurice Chevalier, who was present for the dressing ceremony of his costume.  It was fun taking on the role of Mannekin Pis dresser, choosing from a pile of sample clothing and putting them onto a replica statue.  As we left the museum, we noticed the giant mural of Mannekin Pis dressed in jeans, sneakers and a “30 years of Belgian Hip Hop” t-shirt, with a boombox at his feet.  The representation of the little peeing boy really does seem like it was everywhere in Brussels.

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